RAFALE – THE POLITICAL FOOSBALL

Caesars’s wife must be above suspicion. In a polity riddled with contradictions, conceit & driven by perceptions, early disclosures can be a blessing, while too much of posturing can be damaging in the long run.

BY DANFES

We haven’t yet heard the last word on Rafale, the making & unmaking of a much touted strategic defence deal that finds itself at the centre of a raging political controversy. The wait is only getting longer for the much hyped combat aircrafts to roar over Indian skies, despite an off – the shelf order for 36 of these mean machines a few months ago. While the government has held on to its position of it being an inter-governmental deal, the opposition, mainly congress has been shouting from every roof top, every pedestal, of an inherently corrupt arrangement involving none other than the PM himself. In a strange twist to the tale, the government went running back to the SC pleading with it, to read between the lines correctly, lest it found itself on the wrong side of the law that could have severe implications for this government. All in all, Rafale is a pot-boiler of an issue that has held the audiences’ captive for most of the last year & it refuses to die down any time sooner. It is an intriguing tale that has no winners & no losers yet. Can it be the long term Bofors, Achilles heel for the BJP or shall it wither away after the 2019 polls? Election results shall tell us that.

THE STORY

Much of what is being projected about the deal is in public knowledge. The UPA in its tenure had sought 126 fighter jets from France, basing their projections on an optimum requirement by our air force to bolster its depleting air power & enhance its strategic muscle. So back in 2012, UPA decided that India would buy 18 of these highly capable fighter machines off the shelf & the remaining 108 shall be assembled at the state owned HAL facility at Bengaluru. Curiously the NDA after coming to power almost scrapped the deal, citing price as a major constraint. However almost immediately, Mr. Modi intervened at the highest level in the wake of a pressing need by the air force & confirmed a 36 aircraft deal with French government in January 2016, followed subsequently by a confirmation to the effect during his September visit the same year.

For the uninitiated, French company Dassault and its main partners, engine maker Safran and electronic systems maker Thales, shall be sharing technology with India’s DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and also with some private sector companies and state run HAL under the offsets clause. The purpose & aim of the “Rafale deal” as stated by the Government is to invent from the beginning, a multi-role fighter, for air to air and air to ground combat armed with nuclear arsenal along with a highly sophisticated electronic Warfare (EW) systems that can perform reconnaissance and radar jamming roles. For the worth ₹58,000 crore deal, India had to pay a 15% as advance money. France on its part shall invest 30 per cent of this total value in India’s military aeronautics related research programmes and another 20 per cent into local production of Rafale components.

But where is the problem then?

UPA & congress are absolutely convinced about a murky side to the deal, primarily basing their argument around 04 things; First they say, is the too steep an escalation for the additions & alternations that may have resulted in overall up-gradation of the deal. Their argument is that for a product that could cost the exchequer 1/3rd of what has now been negotiated by NDA, is tantamount to cheating & loot of the public money.

Their second & major discomfort is the non-disclosure of the tenets of the deal & the arithmetic that went into settling for an exorbitantly high value transaction, regardless of the caveats or alibi that this government may want to shield itself with. They say that if the Government is so convinced about its bonafides & their concern for national security, all the more reasons for them to come out clean on the pricing & to satisfy the nation’s conscience. Taking refuge under a non-disclosure clause, the government may have tied itself in knots by settling on such a suspect clause in the first place. After all we expect more transparent governance by BJP than being a clone act of what they have always accused their opponents of.

The third sticking point is the Offset clause partnership that sees Anil Ambani lead Reliance Defence Ltd being drafted in as the Principal Indian partner along with many other private players & the state run HAL. What is suspected by the opposition is that despite no credentials, no experience of aircraft building, or component making, how could a non-descript entity step into such a sophisticated defence deal that has enormous security implications for the country. Their argument is that this could not happen without the overt support of this Government & the personal influence that Mr. Modi used on his French counterpart to seal it for the beneficiary company. Politics apart, such an inclusion of a certain Ambani group company, at the cost of ignoring the state run HAL is nothing but cannon fodder for the political adversaries, who despite knowing the intricacies, may not wish to buy any of the arguments put forth by this government, convincing or not so convincing.

The latest irritant for the opposition is the alleged misrepresentation by the Government to the top court, by misusing the “Sealed Envelope” fad to buy itself some respite from the heat, dust & fury unleashed by the Congress. One wonders if it was hindsight wisdom or suffering genuine jitters that ran the establishment back to the Lordships, after a witty opposition pointed out a stark anomaly that could have lead the bench to arrive at a conclusion that they did eventually, letting the government off the hook in the process. The petitioners are back in the court & it would be downright sham if it were to be proven tomorrow, beyond reasonable doubt, that the government indeed had foxed the SC by its intelligently worded rejoinder.

Conclusion

When you hear a tireless defence Minister putting up a brave show for her superior, she may have scored a self goal of sorts by dishing out a lengthy concoction of facts, figures & fiction, giving the Congress more ammunition to fire in the remaining of the winter session. What did she mean by saying that whiles “Bofors sealed late Rajiv Gandhi’s fate; Rafale shall do a converse to Modi”? Allegiance & idol worshipping can have its pitfalls.